A documentary about Boston’s legendary radio station WBCN forges a new way of finding, collecting, and sharing the past
In March of 2019, Bill Lichtenstein’s documentary WBCN and The American Revolution debuted at film festivals. It was an immediate success, winning the best documentary award at the D.C. Independent Film Festival and eliciting glowing reviews. For eagle-eyed audience members, the opening credits tell a surprising story about how the film was made. Before the documentary’s title, and following the name of the film company, LCMedia Productions, are the following words: “In association with UMass Amherst Special Collections and University Archives.”
The way documentaries usually get made is by a filmmaker going from archive to archive in search of primary source materials to weave into a story. Along the way, they discover photographs, audio recordings, and films that create the visual and auditory fabric of their documentary.
For Bill Lichtenstein, making a documentary about WBCN-FM was anything but usual, much like the station itself. Its free-form radio broadcasts out of Boston were, during their heyday, the voice of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Telling that story decades later proved challenging, since radio stations are notoriously missing from the historical record. The last 30-plus years of media buyouts and mergers, resulting in a handful of massive conglomerates ruling the airwaves, have left the tangible history of original, independent stations in dumpsters and landfills.
“There were no archives. There were no tapes. Basically nothing,” explains Lichtenstein. Undaunted, he came up with a creative solution. Lichtenstein was able to raise significant start-up funds when he began working on the film in 2006 using what was then a new form of fundraising: crowdsourcing. Seeing the potential of that model, Lichtenstein put out a call through local Boston media to anyone who had anything documenting WBCN and its world of music and protests.
Lichtenstein had opened the floodgates.
Born on March 15, 1968, with its early studios in the dressing room of the legendary rock club the Boston Tea Party, WBCN brought the excitement and energy around the late sixties music scene to the FM airwaves. Ray Riepen, who opened the Tea Party in 1967, saw there was a large audience for bands like The Who, the Grateful Dead, Muddy Waters, the Kinks, Frank Zappa, and the Velvet Underground; Lou Reed called the Tea Party his favorite place to play in the U.S. Riepen also noticed that no radio station in Boston was playing the music that was increasingly vital to the growing youth movement. He bought time from midnight to 6 a.m. on a failing classical station and hired a bunch of college radio deejays. It was the perfect recipe for a new kind of media.
Although the Tea Party closed in 1970, WBCN grew to be more than just a source for the music of the counterculture; it became an integral part of that counterculture. WBCN added a news department, reporting on the growing unrest on college campuses and, increasingly, playing an active role in the protests across Boston. The station hired a plane to skywrite a giant peace symbol over the Boston Common during the Vietnam War Moratorium demonstration in October 1969. During a building takeover, Danny Schechter, the soon-to-be director of WBCN’s news department, took documents from the office of a Harvard dean that showed Harvard’s direct support of the Vietnam War effort, and they later found their way into print in the underground press. When FBI documents that uncovered the covert and illegal COINTELPRO projects were stolen by activists from the bureau’s office in Media, Pa., a set of the pilfered reports were read live on the air at WBCN to make them public. In 1970, WBCN introduced the Listener Line, where listeners could call in and talk about whatever they wanted, creating a vibrant community conversation about music, culture, and revolution. As activist and educator Steven Wayne explains in Lichtenstein’s documentary, “WBCN was like the soundtrack of the city.”
Lichtenstein began his relationship with WBCN in 1970 at the age of 14 by helping answer calls on the Listener Line. At the end of one of his shifts on the phones, Schechter asked him to report on a protest sparked by the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Lichtenstein was hooked and was given his own show under the name “Little Bill.” This experience led directly to his career as a filmmaker and producer; he worked for ABC as an investigative reporter and eventually founded Lichtenstein Creative Media, where he has directed and produced award-winning documentaries. From his early, pivotal experiences at the station and on the air, Lichtenstein understood firsthand the power of radio and news media, and of the community WBCN had built.
Lichtenstein tapped into this same community to create WBCN and The American Revolution, gathering material through crowdsourcing from the public before “crowdsourcing” was a word. Lichtenstein’s film not only tells the story of WBCN’s history and role and the broader community that supported and participated in the station, it is also made from that community, using the recordings, music, posters, photographs, and other treasures that the deejays and listeners had held on to as traces of that tumultuous era.
By 2013, these traces began to pile up, and Lichtenstein knew he needed help managing the growing stash of history he had acquired. When he brought this problem to Hayley Wood, then the program officer at Mass Humanities, she recommended he talk to the Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at UMass Amherst. SCUA’s focus is on documenting the history of social change and the communities of activists and organizations that have worked to bring real and lasting change to our society. It was clear to Lichtenstein and to SCUA that this was a match.
In the same way that a lack of archival sources for his documentary forced Lichtenstein to take an unusual approach to gathering material for his film, SCUA was forced to adapt its role from the typical one of an archive supporting a documentarian. Instead of helping the filmmaker find the threads for their narrative fabric, SCUA had to help create those threads. Archivists processed, scanned, and worked closely with Lichtenstein to find other caches of historical riches documenting the station and its milieu. One such example was the tens of thousands of negatives in the closet of the widow of Jeff Albertson. Albertson, a student at Boston University during the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a part of an innovative group of documentary photographers coming out of BU at the time. He worked for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and Life, and had kept all of his negatives. This collection was a treasure trove for Lichtenstein, and it added powerful visual documentation of many of the people, places, and movements represented in SCUA’s collections. Thousands of Albertson’s photographs are now online. The seed that Lichtenstein planted continues to grow in SCUA, with significant new collections, totaling hundreds of thousands of objects, still coming to the Libraries on the foundation of this unusual partnership.
WBCN and The American Revolution continues to play across the country, albeit virtually during the coronavirus pandemic, and the story of WBCN couldn’t feel more timely. A big part of what makes this story resonate is how it’s rooted in the history it portrays, from Lichtenstein’s own connection to WBCN to the grassroots and collaborative way the film was put together. It was clear to Lichtenstein from the moment he put out his fateful call in 2006 that his film would have an impact beyond its two-hour-and-four-minute running time. A significant part of that impact comes from the well of historical resources the film has tapped and the unusual but wildly successful partnership between a filmmaker and archivists to preserve those resources and make them available to a new generation of scholars and activists.